Why It Happened the Way It Did | The Nation


Why It Happened the Way It Did

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Insofar as he is interested in the leaders as individuals, Kershaw is most fascinated by the constraints under which they operated and the broader factors by which their freedom of action was limited. Thus when Hitler rejected the advice of his military leaders to give priority to North Africa and the Mediterranean after the stunning victories they had achieved over France and the other Western European countries in 1940, he was, to be sure, driven by the ideological priority he had always given to the conquest of the Soviet Union. Yet at the same time, Kershaw argues cogently, "the decision to attack and destroy the Soviet Union...was strategically forced upon him. He had to gain victory in the east before Stalin could build up his defenses and before the Americans entered the war."

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Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. His books...

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Such decisions, Kershaw underscores, depended not least on previous decisions made by others, and some of these were less governed by force of circumstance than others. The decision with which he opens the book is a case in point. In late May 1940, as it became clear that France had been defeated and it looked as if the British forces sent to aid the French would be killed or captured before they could be evacuated from the Continent, powerful voices within the British Cabinet, led by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, began to be raised in favor of seeking mediation through the Italians, first via Roosevelt, then, when that failed, in a direct Anglo-French approach to Mussolini. Newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to use all the rhetorical force at his command to quash the idea:

Signor Mussolini, if he came in as mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to imagine that Herr Hitler would be so foolish as to let us continue our re-armament. In effect, his terms would put us completely at his mercy. We should get no worse terms if we went on fighting, even if we were beaten, than were open to us now.

If Britain sued for peace, he said, it would be forced to disarm and become a slave state, under a puppet government run by British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. In the event, the French decided to go it alone; their peace feelers were rudely rebuffed by Mussolini, who did indeed want to "take his whack." Nearly 225,000 British troops were evacuated from the Continent at Dunkirk, an event that Churchill's stirring rhetoric remarkably turned from a calamitous defeat into some sort of victory. And Britain fought on.

What would have happened if Halifax and his allies had carried the day in the Cabinet? Here, following Churchill's lead, Kershaw engages in some fascinating counterfactual speculation. Certainly, he argues, in the event of a peace between Britain and Germany in May or June 1940, Hitler would have demanded the sacking of the Churchill administration. But more likely as a successor than the unpopular and discredited Mosley would have been a widely admired politician such as David Lloyd George, Britain's prime minister in World War I and a self-professed admirer of Hitler. Lloyd George indeed envisaged a role of this sort, possibly under a restored King Edward VIII, whose sympathies with Nazi Germany and belief in the need for a separate peace with Hitler were also on record. This would have been something like the regime installed in France in 1940 under the hero of France's army in World War I, Marshal Philippe Pétain, though initially at least without its Fascist leanings. A rival government, possibly under Churchill, might have been set up in Canada. But with Britain effectively on Germany's side, the swelling tide of American aid would have been stopped, and Hitler would have been free to marshal all his forces, whenever he wanted to, for the long-desired invasion of the Soviet Union. And whatever he might say, Hitler would not have waited long before embarking on the dismemberment of the British Empire, contrary to the view expressed by some later historians such as Maurice Cowling, Alan Clark and John Charmley, who have argued that a separate peace with Germany in 1940 would have been the best way to have preserved it.

How legitimate is this kind of speculation? Kershaw is careful not to take it too far; indeed, he does not go much beyond the scenarios painted by Churchill himself on this occasion. Rather than draw imaginative pictures of what might have happened, Kershaw seeks to assess the alternatives open to the decision-makers. He does no more than hint that a peace with Britain in 1940 might have increased the chances of Hitler's defeating the Soviet Union. But in fact, those chances were never very great. Though Germany might have had "all the Continent's material resources at its disposal" in such an event, the Nazi exploitation of the defeated French and other economies was so ruthless that these counted for relatively little in the long run. The Soviet Union defeated Germany largely on its own.

Hitler's decision to invade Russia was made in the summer and autumn of 1940, prompted, Kershaw argues, not least by the German dictator's knowledge that with Britain still in the war, the vast resources of the US economy would soon be pouring into the British war effort in ever-increasing quantities. It is possible to imagine, as Kershaw does, that if the counsels of the German generals had prevailed and the German war effort been directed toward the conquest of North Africa and the Middle East, gaining vast oil reserves desperately needed by the Nazi economy and cutting off the main British supply route to the East through the Suez Canal, the fatal confrontation with the Soviet Union might have been postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

As it was, Hitler got the worst of both worlds. Turning to Mussolini's decision to join the war on the German side after the crushing defeat of France, Kershaw portrays the Italian elites as avid for a share of the spoils. Remaining neutral would have enabled Italy to have husbanded its weak resources in the traditional manner by playing one side off against the other. Mussolini should, perhaps, have remembered the sarcastic remark of a Russian negotiator at a peace conference in the late nineteenth century, that since the Italians were demanding an increase in their territory, he supposed they must have lost another battle. Disappointed with Hitler's refusal to accede to his demands in the West, Mussolini made the fatal decision to invade Greece. Soon, Italian military failures there and in North Africa had sucked the Germans into a theater of war in which they did not really want to fight.

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